The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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'We are not a country that needs a heavy police presence in a particular area' – inspector

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 13 November 2022, 08:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

Malta is not a country that needs a heavy police presence in a particular area, Police Inspector Mark Cremona, who is in charge of Community Policing in the Southern District, told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

In an interview with this newsroom, he was asked about community policing and its effectiveness, as well as the localities under his remit. He was also asked about incidents that had drawn widespread attention.

Hamrun, for instance, saw street parties taking place during a time when Covid restrictions prohibited such activities, and more recently, a public brawl made headlines. The inspector was asked whether community police officers are able to control such situations, if they will be able to be more effective once earning the trust of the community or if heavier police presence is needed in certain localities.

"We aren’t a country that needs a heavy police presence in a particular area. We never could have prevented a situation like what we saw in Hamrun, as it was an incident that happened instantaneously,” he said.

He said that there are a number of communities that live and are established in Hamrun and Marsa. “We identified the heads of these communities, began talking and collaborating with them. In fact, after that incident we held a meeting with the Syrian community," he said, adding that it is divided in two factions.

"The two factions reached agreement for continuous communication.” He said that if they have a problem or an issue, they can approach the police through this cooperation so that eventually they can prevent incidents.

Currently community policing covers 75% of Malta, he said, when asked about the effectiveness of community policing compared to the old system. He quipped that mayors constantly ask when the project would start in their locality. 

He explained that the police are in the process of launching five more teams that cover a number of localities, "many of which are in the south of Malta. It is a different way of operating… we are operating proactively, not reactively", tackling issues at their outset, he added.

It is a new system, part of the transformation plan within the Police Force, he said, adding that the police "are placing the community at the centre of our operations".

A community policing team is composed of a sergeant and a number of police officers, he said.

The sergeant has a managerial role and would take care of complaints, meet with NGOs, entities and the local council, he said. "Each officer then has a specific area. In that area the officer would build a relationship with the community and eventually we would get to know what, realistically, the people are feeling.”

He said that crimes like murders, while major for the media and the people in general, might not directly affect someone in a locality elsewhere. Issues that might affect them directly, he said, would be a neighbour's dog barking or garbage not being taken out according to schedule and the consistency of issues that bother people, he said, could eventually also lead to crime.

He also said that community police officers process the information they receive from the public and eventually if needed involve other police units to target particular crime.

Complaints have been made regarding police stations being found closed in certain localities. Asked if community policing makes up for this, or if more resources are needed, he said that the resource problem could be an issue.

But, he said, what the police are doing is looking at how to effectively use their resources. "And that is what we are doing, we are using our resources where they are truly needed."

"You mentioned the closed police stations. Today we have many ways a person can report a crime. They can report a crime by sending an email or calling the police. Community police officers, when out on patrol, have business cards that they hand out with a QR code that can be scanned on a mobile phone, through which a person can then make a report or complaint. We are looking at where best to use our resources and what new methods can be introduced so that people can file reports. It is part of the transformation plan, we are modernising the force, using new technology not only to file reports, but also in how we work."

Community policing doesn't focus on waiting for residents to go to a police station, but rather the police go to the residents, he said. "That is the proactiveness in the localities, so that a person doesn't need to go to a station to file a report," he said.

As for training, he said that ad hoc specialised training is being provided to new community policing teams, "not only on the concept of community policing or about how we operate through the intelligence we gather and how we share information, but a number of units within the Police Force are also providing training, as are other departments. We collaborate a lot with Caritas and with the human rights directorate".

Community policing is a relatively new squad, he said, having been around for three years. "But we saw the need to provide ad hoc training specifically to our officers as they tackle all sorts of crimes. At the end of the day the officers on the ground are the eyes and ears of the Police Force, so it is good that they would be a bit knowledgeable about everything so when faced with a situation, they would be able to handle it."

Asked whether community policing is achieving its aim of building trust within localities, he said that "this is what the numbers are showing, and each year the trust in the police is growing. I won't say that this is solely the result of the community policing project. It is due to a holistic effort within the Police Force, that every department is changing the mentality of how they operate. Part of the transformation plan places the community at the centre of our operations, and that is, what I believe to be, the secret ingredient. When you place the community at the centre, you are able to solve problems at an early stage, preventing them from reaching the point of bigger crimes."

Recently, three police officers were charged with allegedly having kidnapped and beaten foreign nationals. Asked whether this affects the trust of different communities in the police, he said it does.

The inspector said that the Police Force has always made sure that they would be there for citizens, irrespective of who they are. 

He said that presently, the police are collaborating with the human rights directorate to provide specific training in this regard.

"Today we have police officers who speak different languages, and this helps break the language barrier between the police and the different communities. We also started a public reassurance process in this regard and began holding meetings with different communities to communicate with them, explain to them how we could better collaborate and even explain the process of this particular case, that this isolated case shouldn't affect the very good relationship we have between the police and the communities."

"The response we have had has been very positive," he said. A cohesion team is also planned to be formed, that will specifically communicate and build relationships with different communities.

He was asked about another incident, this time in Marsa, where the police were accused of being heavy-handed in a raid against migrants that took place in September. A structure outside a bar had even been demolished through the use of heavy machinery. He was asked whether such actions affect trust in police officers.

He said the operation wasn't on migration.

"What happened in Marsa was, what we call an action day, where we targeted multiple irregularities. The Health Authority was with us, the detention services... there were diverse units together and as the media reported, aside from migration issues, two people were arraigned on drug trafficking charges."

"The operation wasn't specifically on migration per se, but was spread out on all that was irregular and concentrated in a relatively small area."

"We found other irregularities from Maltese property owners who were renting to migrants and we informed other entities so that they could take action (...) We reported our findings to these entities who are conducting their investigations. Eventually, that operation led to more irregularities in other areas of Marsa."

In terms of the structure, he said that that occurred on another day, adding: "There was an illegal structure and through the support of the cleansing department, we removed it and issued charges against the Maltese owner of the bar who built that illegal structure."

He said that the police do not make distinctions between a Maltese and foreign person. "The reality is that there is a concentration of foreigners in the area you mentioned, but the fact remains that there are also Maltese, and action was taken not just against foreigners, but also against Maltese."

 

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